Cricket and hockey, two traditional games of the English elite are now eclipsed completely by working class football in the UK. In an ironic twist of fate, these sports are now patronized primarily by the middle class in its former plantation colony India. Even more twisted, many urban elites in India have now embraced European football as a marker of a more globalized identity, in opposition to the more ‘desi’ cricket. The popularity and patronization of a sport in a group of people still has more to do with identity and politics than any inherent characteristic of the sport.
Unlike cricket, hockey has not become a global behemoth in terms of revenue and following. Can hockey enter the upper echelons of global team sports ? I think if the Indian government, interested business and sports bodies play their cards well, hockey can do this. The key could be an IPL style hockey league. The adjective IPL style should not be understood in a facile manner. The cricket IPL is no ordinary sports league. It operates in a sporting universe where the international game is the highest echelon, rather than commercial city based clubs. This compresses its playing time to just 8 weeks, but the league generates more than a billion dollars in revenues in that period. Revenue per game is $ 10 million, compared to the NFL’s $ 50 million. The IPL achieves these numbers with a league only 14 years old, from a country with 1/30th America’s per capita GDP.
The spectacular success of the IPL is a miracle, and a similar mini-miracle will be needed to sustain a hockey league. A dedicated playing window, so all the best players can play on a single platform. Teams in big markets like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru to maximize revenues and publicity. Careful game timings and advertising to capitalize on a small but dedicated (and wealthy) fan following in the low countries and Germany. Since hockey as a sport has official status in India (in contrast to cricket), it can and should receive backing from the government. The Indian government can own a stake in the hockey IPL which it can relieve when the league is well established and profitable.
There are advantages hockey has vis-a-vis cricket in terms of playing time (1 hr vs 3 hrs) and its similarity to football in play and scoring. Of course, it is an established Olympic sport with strong men’s and women’s competitions. Hockey, along with soccer and cricket emphasizes skill and agility more than bulk and power, making it relatable in more geographies and demographics. The successful Olympics campaign will give birth to hockey stars who will rapidly gain a following in the sports star loving Indian public. Once well ensconced commercially in India, the game of hockey will garner the resources to promote itself further, just like cricket has.